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MSG and Chinese Restaurants

by Joe Sing

Sauces, Seasonings, and Spices

Winter Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(4) page(s): 9


For thousands of years, Japanese cooks used a special ingredient called konbu, in their cooking. It was made from seaweed and used to make their dishes more tasty and more savory. In the early 1900's, an active ingredient was isolated from this seaweed and identified as monosodium glutamate (MSG). Shortly after that, the Japanese started to manufacture MSG in large quantities. It soon became a multi-million dollar business. Among the first to use MSG to enhance food taste were Chinese Restaurants in the United States. After World War II, all the major food companies in the world and many restaurants used MSG in their products.

Twenty-five years ago, more than two hundred fifty thousand metric tons or five hundred million pounds of MSG were being produced and sold. It is estimated now, that over one billion pounds are produced and sold annually. Many people believe that MSG makes foods taste better; others disdain it.

By the end of the 1960's, research data caused alarm about side effects associated with the use of food products made with MSG. At that time, I was the manager of a Chinese restaurant on Long Island and Chinese Restaurants were exceptionally popular in the 1960's. About the same time, a famous Chinese doctor complained about getting headaches and tightness of his temple whenever he ate at a Chinese restaurant. Also, at about this time, the phrase 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' first appeared in the media. Some time thereafter, due to an outcry of indignation from the Chinese restaurants, it was relabeled 'MSG Syndrome.' Nonetheless, 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' is still widely used to describe any unpleasant reaction people experience who think they are sensitive to MSG.

Dr. George Schwartz appeared quite a few years ago on a 'CBS 60 Minutes' television program. He called MSG a neurotransmitter that excites your nervous system into thinking that you are tasting savory foods. Dr. Russell Blaylock of the Medical University of Mississippi, stated in his book about and called Exitotoxins, that MSG could possibly aggravate or even precipitate neurodegenerative problems such as Parkinson, Huntington, Alzheimers, and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

How is this so? MSG is a modified form of glutamic acid to which sodium replaces hydrogen forming monosodium glutamate or MSG. According to research data, the glutamate radical of the molecule is the part that causes the 'MSG Syndrome.' Other substances such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) and autolyzed yeast contain anywhere from ten to fifty percent MSG. Many oyster flavored sauces and other Chinese sauces, which are used extensively by Chinese restaurants, have MSG in them. It is also used in some chicken bases that make up many a Chinese restaurant soup; there are a number of cooks who believe that these soup products do not contain MSG and unknowingly, they use them.

In 1967-1968, Dr. John W. Onley who is a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis, discovered that MSG was a toxic substance that caused damage to the retina and hypothalamus in the brains of the mice he was working with. After alerting the Food and Drug Administration, he appeared before a congressional committee investigating food additives. Immediately thereafter, manufacturers agreed not to use MSG in baby foods. Since then, literally millions of people have complained of 'MSG Syndrome' though not all of them may have had a real reaction. But some of them may have been seriously ill because even today, MSG manufactures admit that a small percentage of the population is adversely affected by this additive.

Early in 1994, a lawsuit was filed in Suffolk county, New York seeking 15 million dollars as compensation for a young woman in her twenties who died after eating egg rolls which contained MSG. This, despite the fact that the Chinese restaurant assured her that it did not use MSG in its food. This is but one of several recent cases of people having health problems allegedly due to ingesting MSG.

Because of earlier unfavorable publicity regarding MSG, many people are aware that the Chinese restaurant industry has suffered. This is true, even though most people know that when Chinese food is properly prepared, it is the most healthy and tasty of all known cuisines, and that it does not have to have MSG to make it so.

My personal advice to the Chinese restaurant industry is to try to remove the stigma of this syndrome associated with Chinese foods. Only then can the Chinese restaurant industry regain its position, in the mind of the American public, as provider of wholesome and healthy cuisine.

That is the bad news for Chinese restaurants. The good news is that the MSG syndrome problem can be eliminated by better cooking techniques and by using newer products on the market (including a product called 'GOUR MAY KING'). These new products, most called ribotides, are powders that can be used the same way one uses MSG; they enhance the taste of all food products and will not cause 'MSG Syndrome.' (I developed 'GOUR MAY KING' in cooperation with Takeda Industries of Japan utilizing their patented and FDA approved product called 'Ribotide.') Ribotides are co-crystalline mixtures of two nucleotides, disodium insolate and disodium guanylate. As a flavor enhancing substance discovered in 1926, they are from twenty to fifty times as effective as MSG. Now, they are used by many major food manufacturers to replace MSG as a flavor enhancer. Not only are manufacturers using these new products, restaurants and individuals are, too.

The Chinese restaurant you frequent that clearly says No MSG, may be using a ribotide. Restaurants that are not Chinese are using them, too; so are many major hotels. (Clearly, I am proud that a product I make is in use and helping people.) Ask your local restaurant not to use MSG. They are welcome to use my product or any of the others on the market instead; or they can figure out a way to prepare tasty food without MSG.
_____
Joe Sing is co-director of the Institute for the Advancement of the Science and Art of Chinese Cuisine, the parent organization of this magazine. He developed and sells 'Gour May Taste' and other products; and he speaks about them as he did at the 1994 Chinese Cuisine and the American Palate Conference. He also manufactures, cooks, and caters at hotels and restaurants, and for individuals from Classical Chinese Cuisine, a company he owns located in Glen Cove, New York.

                                                                                                                                                       
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